Kraków - More than five hundred leaders of the world's great religions, together with political leaders and scholars gathered in Kraków from September 6 to 8 at the invitation of the Community of Sant'Egidio and Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz to revive the "spirit of Assisi" in the late Pope John Paul II's native city.
Spirit of Assisi
The religious leaders agreed to meet at a crossroads of European history, paving the way for a pilgrimage, unprecedented in size and representation, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, as a token of reconciliation and peace and a symbol of a radical rejection of violence and war as a way of solving international conflicts.
John Paul II inaugurated the historic World Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Assisi on October 27, 1986: an appeal to the God of all religions to grant peace to his world.
Seventy years on from the start of the Second World War and twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe's communist regimes, Stanisław Dziwisz, former secretary of John Paul II, Cardinal Archbishop of Kraków and the Community of Sant'Egidio decided to revive the spirit of Assisi, to spread from Kraków to the rest of the world.
In these hard times of economic crisis and regional conflicts, it is hoped that religions will garner, through dialogue, the spiritual energy needed to restore a vision for the future.
Some ten cardinals were present: with Cardinal Dziwisz, were Cardinals Rylko, Etchegaray, Sepe, Sistach, Poupard, Glemp, Macharski, Shirayanagi and McCarrick.
His Beatitude, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch and All the East, Gregorios III (Laham) was also there to speak in two panels, one of which he also chaired.
From other ancient Eastern and Orthodox Churches, there were Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Syrian representatives.
Participation from different parts of the world was ample and dynamic with representatives of International Christian Communions, of international Christian organizations and of other great world religions, including an appreciable Muslim presence, from Indonesia, India, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, Ivory Coast and Qatar as well as noteworthy representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
And finally there were many international authorities and heads of state: including representatives from Albania, Costa Rica, Cyprus, East Timor, Poland and Uganda, another important sign of a multi-polar world.
The Opening Eucharist and Addresses
The conference opened with a Eucharistic celebration in the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy. Cardinal Dziwisz and Metropolitan Serafim of the Romanian Orthodox Church each gave a homily on the importance of seeking together peace for the world in the spirit of Assisi. At noon, the conference was linked to the Angelus in the Vatican and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI greeted the congress:
..We are compelled to remember the tragic events that sparked one of the most terrible conflicts in history, which caused tens of millions of dead and so much sufferance to the beloved people of Poland; a conflict that unleashed the tragedy of the holocaust and the extermination of scores of other innocent people. May the memory of these events drive us to pray for the victims and for those who still bear wounds in their bodies and in their hearts. May it also stand as an admonishment to all, not to replicate such barbarity but rather to intensify efforts in building long-lasting peace in our times marked by conflict and contraposition, conveying, especially to younger generations, a culture and lifestyle full of love, solidarity and esteem for the other. In this perspective the contribution Religions can and must give is particularly important for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation, opposing violence, racism, totalitarianism and extremism, which debase the image of the Creator in man, removing the vision of God, and ultimately leading to despise for man himself...
Some of the themes of His Holiness' address were echoed in the inaugural address by José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, speaking later that afternoon. His vision of hope for the future of Europe in the twenty-first century, despite, or perhaps because of past conflicts, was that Europe ...can become a champion of the values of peace, freedom and solidarity and give our positive contribution. This is the kind of Europe I believe in. A Europe that puts people at the heart of its project. A Europe that puts its values at the heart of the relations with the rest of the world. A Europe which promotes human development in the fullest possible sense. A Europe which promotes the development of "the whole man and of all men."
The Panel Discussions
Monday saw the participants devote both morning and afternoon to discussions led by panels. In the course of the day, twenty-two such sessions were held. His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios was a contributor to the morning's discussion as member of the panel: Dialogue of Faith and Culture.
In the afternoon, His Beatitude both chaired a panel and contributed to the discussion on: The Scriptures in Monotheistic Faiths. (See separate texts.)
Memorial Ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Tuesday found the participants walking along the railway tracks to the notorious former death camp at Auschwitz. At the monument to the victims of Nazi Fascism, they were greeted by the Bishop of Bielsko-Zywiec and listened to the testimony of a Jewish witness and a gypsy survivor of the camp.
Appeal for Peace 2009
Later that evening, the various religions and denominations met at various locations for prayers in the old city of Kraków, before walking out together for the Final Ceremony in the Market Square. Cardinal Dziwisz and a representative of the Saint Egidio community addressed the assembled gathering. They were followed by other speakers from different faiths and different communities across the world. Then there was a minute's silence to remember all victims of war, terrorism and violence before an Appeal for Peace 2009, when children of various nationalities gave, on behalf of young people everywhere, an Appeal for Peace to ambassadors and government officials present. After a short address from Cardinal Sistach of Barcelona, the Appeal for Peace was signed and candelabras were lit by the conference participants before the sign of peace was exchanged.